8.6.1 Burial Evidence

The burial evidence for the early medieval period had long been noted for its dating problems. Although Iron Age burial evidence is sparse, recent work with radiocarbon dating is starting to provide more data (see 7.6). Similarly, for the early medieval period we are now gathering more data, and it is becoming clear that the situation is more complex than previously thought. Good overviews for burials in the eastern Highland region can be found in Ritchie (2011), Maldonado (2011; 2013), Heald and Barber (2015), Mitchell and Noble (2019) and Mitchell (2019).

As noted for the Iron Age, few burials are known from this period, though there are hints that some sites such as the brochs in Caithness, have bodies or parts of bodies buried within or near them (Chapter 7.6). There are hints that this continues at the beginning of the early medieval period. At Crosskirk broch (MHG1053), an adult male was buried sitting upright in an enclosure just outside the broch (Heald and Barber 2015, 95). Recent radiocarbon dating of the bones revealed that this burial took place between cal AD 330 and 540  (Tucker and Armit 2009, 215). This burial rite is unique, and it hints at complex world views – or perhaps a distinctive individual. At other brochs, perforated bones have also been found; most where dated are from the end of the Iron Age. At Pap broch, Hillhead (MHG42234), a perforated cranial fragment found in the roundhouse entrance dated to cal AD 310–440 (Tucker and Armit 2009, 215). Evidence for this practice also was present at sites other than brochs as shown by the perforated skull fragment from Lower Dounreay (MHG2511) dated to cal AD 660–780, found in a group of burials postdating an Iron Age roundhouse (Armit and Shapland 2015, 38–9). These practices show continuity of treatment of the dead in this area. As discussed in the Iron Age chapter, the reasons behind perforating human bone, and burying only part, not the whole body, can only be guessed at. It could be the mark of reverence, or exactly the opposite.

At the beginning of the early medieval period, a new way of burying the dead appear in the eastern Highland region: the use of formal cemeteries or clusters of graves in square or round cairns or barrows. Most have been identified by aerial photography, but recent excavations, particularly at Tarradale in Easter Ross (MHG9097; Grant 2020), and earlier investigations at Garbeg (MHG3361) and Whitebridge (MHG2637) are starting to build a more detailed picture of this practice. At Garbeg and Whitebridge the barrows are upstanding. The potential of further research at these two sites was highlighted in the National ScARF (ScARF Medieval section 4.5), but only limited investigation has happened at each. A number of the sites identified by cropmarks are not scheduled (Table 8.4), and consequently potentially at risk; these sites should be given protection before they are damaged.

Photograph showing a large, open, rectangle trench from above. Yellow-orange sand represents the natural gorund level, with darker, brown sand representing the archaeological features. One large circular feature and one large square feature are visible in their outline, with two smaller circles and one small square surrounding them. Smaller trenches are seen cut into these wall features.
Aerial view of the barrow cemetery excavation at Tarradale. ©Tarradale Through Time
John o’GroatsCNDisturbed cemetery discovered by chanceDating overlaps medieval period: AD 891-1163; AD 900-1274MHG39354; Driscoll 1993; Elaine Dunbar pers comm
Lower DounreayCNBurials discovered by chance; partial excavation7th to 8th century; aDNA analysis. In nuclear power plant areaMHG2511; Sheridan et al 2018; MacLaren 2003; Tucker & Armit 2009
AckergillCNUpstanding remains, early excavationsC14 date for body nearby, probably from cemeteryMHG2135; Ritchie 2011; Heald and Barber 2015; Mitchell 2019
Reiss LinksCNMound with cistsExcavated in 1930sMHG2025
Birkle HillsCNLong cists in shell moundEarly excavationsMHG42463; Ritchie 2011
Castle LinglasCYFour cists, early excavationFound over remains of brochMHG42460
Stain (Keiss)CN19th C excavations of long cistsaDNA and recent C14 analysisMHG411; Ritchie 2011
Creag a’BhataSNLow remains of two cairnsNeeds further investigationMHG28333
BaddanSNCropmarks MHG11215; Mitchell 2019
Dairy Park, DunrobinSNTwo cists excavated in 19th cPictish stone. New C14 dateMHG9588; Sheridan et al 2017
Portmahomack & BalnabruachERNExcavated finds5th to 7th CenturyCarver et al 2016, 76ff
BalintoreERNSeveral long cists found by chance5th to 6th century; aDNA analysisMHG6340; Sheridan et al 2018
PoyntzfieldERNCropmarks MHG16119; Mitchell & Noble 2019
TarradaleERNCropmarks; some excavationAwaiting excavation resultsMHG40177; Birch and Noble 2020
KerrowairdIYCropmarks MHG2925
GarbegIYLow upstanding remainsSymbol stone. Limited excavationMHG3361; Wedderburn and Grime 1984
WhitebridgeIYLow upstanding remainsVery limited excavationMHG2637
TordarrochINLow remains, mainly stone heapsNeeds further investigationMHG3576; MHG3592; MHG3593
Wester KerrowgairINCropmarks MHG35589;
AllanfearnIYCropmarksGeophysical survey in areaMHG2939
Brin SchoolIYLow remainsMuch disturbedMHG3884
Little KildrummieNNCropmarks MHG7280
West Croftmore/ PityoulishB&SYCropmarks, one barrow excavatedRadiocarbon date of burial: AD 435-605MHG4687; Rae and Rae 1953
Mains of GartenB&SNCropmarks MHG35390
Croftgowan (Kinrara)B&SNCropmarks. Potentially largest in HighlandONB records finds of sword, so possible reuse.MHG40191
Na SidheananEiggYLow upstanding remains MHG33338
Table 8.4  Possible or confirmed Pictish cemeteries (excluding chapel sites and single burials)
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Excavations in the early 1900s uncovered an impressive cemetery at Ackergill, Caithness area, showing circular cairns, rectangular cairns and long cists (Ritchie 2011; Heald and Barber 2015, 111ff; Mitchell 2019). Archival work suggests that the part of the cemetery that was excavated by Tres Barry in 1902 was separate from the cemetery excavated by Edwards in 1926, and that the human remains were left in place. It seems likely there are more cairns at Ackergill and Reiss. Field and geophysical survey may establish the possible extent of the cemetery. The human remains from the 1925–6 excavations appear to have been lost, despite Edwards and Bryce (anatomist) working at the National Museums Scotland and the Hunterian respectively. Bryce commented on the poor condition of the remains, and it is possible they were not retained because of their condition (Mitchell 2019).  Further work at this site, building on recent analysis by Mitchell (2019), would be valuable.

Most of the identified cemeteries are small, but seem formally laid out. Some of the individual barrows, particularly at Tarradale, are very large (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 86ff). The cemetery at Croftgowan, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG40191), identified from aerial photos, appears to have at least 40 barrows, which makes it the largest Highland cemetery of its kind identified to date (Mitchell 2019). Early burials were generally oriented southwest-northeast, and at Portmahomack monastic burials shift to west/east; the earlier orientation which is also observed in Ireland and Wales, has been argued to show pre-Christian practices (Maldonado 2013, 23).

These cemeteries seem to have flourished at a time when the early Pictish kingdoms were forming, and have been seen as part of this emerging cultural identity (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 95). These cemeteries seem to go out of use towards the end of the 7th century. In a few cases, for example at Dairy Park, Golspie (MHG10893), Ackergill, Caithness (MHG2135; Heald and Barber 2015, 111ff) and Garbeg, Inverness-shire (MHG3361) Pictish sculptured stones were also found, but it is still not clear if they were used as gravemarkers, re-used as building materials for cists, or formed part of a wider burial and ceremonial landscape (Maldonado 2013, 15; Mitchell and Noble 2019, 94). The Dairy Park, Golpie body has been re-analysed recently, providing a date of cal AD 565–640 (SUERC-76203; Sheridan et al 2017). This superseded earlier dates and helps to establish a chronological framework for redating the development of Pictish symbols (Noble et al 2018).  

Image shows a black and white picture of an irregularly shaped symbol stone, There are four separate carvings on the surface of the stone. From the top, there is a double crescent symbol, a serpent with v-rod symbol. At the bottom, in line with one another, is a round mirror and a small, rectangular comb. The stone is mounted with iron brackets on a wooden platform.
Pictish carved stone from Dairy Park, Dunrobin. ©HES (Tom and Sybil Gray Collection)

Elsewhere in Scotland long cist cemeteries are known, but these are relatively rare in the north. It is unclear if this distinction is a cultural difference or due to a lack of detail in cropmark evidence (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 91). Nevertheless, long cists occur individually, and a few with no surviving aboveground markers have been dated to this period (Maldonado 2013, 13; Table 8.4). Some of the Caithness long cists included upright slabs at the ends of the cists for example at Murkle Bay (MHG1397). The sourcing and transport of suitable stones for long cists will have had implications for burial rites, possibly relating to status (Maldonado 2013, 14–15).

The clusters of barrows and cairns would have been distinctive in the landscape. Although barrows and cairns are different types of construction, barrows can have cairn-like elements so it is not a straightforward distinction. Square barrows and cairns with emphasised corners are a particular architectural feature observed from Fife to Shetland to Eigg, and the cemeteries have varied monument types, including square, round, penannular and rectangular constructions (Mitchell 2019). Cists in some cairns were backfilled with clean, sterile sand, sometimes to some depth. This tradition can be traced back to the Iron Age in some areas including northwest Sutherland (MacGregor 2003). The outlines of cairns, whether square or round, were carefully laid out with a kerb or multiple courses of stones. Within was a pavement of carefully chosen stones which were sometimes white. At Ackergill in Caithness, there were local variations from monument to monument, and there is even evidence of reuse (Ritchie 2011; Maldonado 2013, 17–19; Heald and Barber 2015, 111ff; Mitchell 2019).

Barrows had low, flat-topped mounds or platforms over inhumations. In general most barrows covered a single burial (Maldonado 2013, 19-20). Few have been excavated, but they too are varied in construction. Excavation of the round barrow at Pityoulish, Strathspey, showed that a layer of stone had been laid over the burial area before the mound was constructed (Rae and Rae 1953). Excavation of square barrow 3 at Garbeg showed that a kerb-defined square cairn sat at the centre of the low earthen platform, with boulders marking each of the ditch corners (Wedderburn and Grime 1984).

In most cases the mounds have been ploughed out, and poor preservation of bodies is the norm across Scotland. At Tarradale, Easter Ross, a number of round and square burials, enclosures and two large pit features from the large cemetery were excavated in 2019 and should provide valuable information on dating. Unfortunately bone preservation was poor (Birch and Noble 2020).

Photograph of an open grave cut after being excavated. The trench is sub-oval, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, with rounded ends. The natural soil is yellow-brown, with areas of black soil representing the stain of human remains which have decomposed. The outline of the lowers legs is visible, as well as the head and upper torso. The soil beneath the body stain appears to be the outline of a rectangular coffin.
Excavation of a grave cut at Tarradale showing the stain of a log coffin and a skeleton. ©Tarradale Through Time

At Portmahomack, a cluster of six burials, five in long cists, were buried on the site of the later church and three more were constructed in the nearby Glebe field. These have been radiocarbon dated to the 5th to 7th centuries and are of mixed sexes and ages. No details of the barrows survive, apart from outlines on aerial photographs, but both areas were disturbed by later activity (Carver et al 2016, 76ff). At nearby Balintore other burials have been discovered over the years. Some have been in cists, although these have not been systematically excavated. From descriptions, many appear to be crouched inhumations, and therefore are probably Bronze Age. However, the three which were dated were clearly contemporary with the Portmahomack burials. aDNA analysis has also been undertaken on these burials (Sheridan et al 2018) with results awaited. Nearby at the Hilton of Cadboll chapel site, a windblown sand layer with charcoal, human bone and animal bone also produced dates from the early medieval period, suggesting a possibility of other burials in the vicinity as well, and possibly a Pictish period chapel (MHG8547; James et al 2008, 388).

There is also evidence of different rites. Cremated bones may have been deposited within a round house at Rhiconich in northwest Sutherland, though it was not possible to be certain whether the bone was human or animal (Donnelly et al 1997). The Bronze Age monuments at Balnuaran of Clava were re-used in this period, with cremated bone placed outside the central ring cairn (Bradley 2000, 119). The excavations at Tarradale provide our first evidence in the Highlands for early medieval period log coffins (Birch and Noble 2020), while one 9th or 10th century individual from Portmahomack appears to have been buried in a wicker or possibly wooden coffin (Carver et al 2016, 117). Poor preservation hinders discussion on how common this was.

A thoroughly unusual burial is that of a male who was brutally killed and then buried in a cave near Rosemarkie between cal AD 430–631 (Case Study Rosemarkie Caves Project). He was carefully laid out near where there was evidence of metalworking. He was probably local, and unusual in having had a high protein diet. The brutality of his death is not in question, but its interpretation – whether murder or ritually motivated – is still the matter of some debate.

Photograph of a skeleton found in-situ. The bones are red, against the dark brown and black soil. The skeleton is placed lying on its side against the cave wall, with its legs bent as if they were crossed. The skull is seen towards the right of the image, and appears to have been crushed.
The skeleton of ‘Rosemarkie Man’ in situ discovered during excavations as part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project in 2016. ©Rosemarkie Caves Project
A reconstructed image of an ancient man, with a prominent brow bone, long, wavy hair, a beard and a mustache. The image is in black and white.
Facial reconstruction of ‘Rosemarkie Man’. ©Rosemarkie Caves Project/Dr Chris Ryan, CAHID, University of Dundee

The relatively small number of burials in most cemeteries reminds archaeologists that other ways of disposing the dead were also probably in use, with those in barrows or cists probably reserved for an elite group (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 96). The scattered evidence for exposure and cremation here and elsewhere in Argyll and the Northern and Western Isles suggests these were more common, but less archaeologically visible, in the Highland region (Maldonado 2013).

FindspotAreaWhat was foundDatingLab NoGrave TypeCommentRefs
Lower DounreayCAt least seven inhumationsAD 660-780Cists and pit burialsaDNA analysis. Dated bone was fragment of cranium with drilled holeMHG2511; Sheridan et al 2018; MacLaren 2003; Tucker & Armit 2009
Ackergill LinksC AD 256-530SUERC-2985 Female femur eroding from dune, probably from Ackergill cemetery, or from spoil heap of early excavationMHG32135;
AckergillC16 inhumations in 10 gravesAD 426-578SUERC-81218Long cists, mostly under cairnsSkull obtained prior to 1892, but thought to be from the cemetery. NMS X.ET 32MHG2135; Sheridan et al  2018; Ritchie 2011; Heald & Barber 2015, 111ff
Stain (Keiss)C11 long cists, most with cairnsAD 398-536Long cists, mostly under cairnsNew date from Laing’s skull (NMS X ET 60). Dating to be published in DES 2020. One skull sampled for aDNAMHG411; Mitchell 2019
Sheridan et al 2019
Crosskirk BrochCSeated burial in cistAD 330-540SUERC-23663cist MHG39521; Tucker & Armit 2009
Pap Broch (Hillhead)CPerforated cranial fragAD 310-440SUERC-24962 In roundhouse entranceMHG2530; Tucker & Armit 2009
Wag of ForseCFemoral shaftAD 230-390SUERC-24238 Buried below roundhouse entranceMHG2404; Tucker & Armit 2009
John o’GroatsCNAD 891-1163; AD 900-1274GU-2654
 Disturbed multi-period cemeteryMHG39354; Driscoll 1993; Elaine Dunbar pers comm
Dairy Park, GolspieSInhumation in long cistAD 565-650SUERC-76203Long cist under cairnThis date replaces earlier onesMHG39734; Sheridan et al 2017
Kintradwell brochSInhumations, articulated & disarticulatedAD 810-1020SUERC-23670Date is of Inhumation placed in broch rubbleA number of burials in the broch ruins. One possibly VikingMHG9778; Tucker & Armit 2009; MacKie 2007
Portmahomack & BalnabruachER19 burials5th-7th centuryLong cists and pits8 datedCarver et al 2016, 76ff
PortmahomackEROver 40 burials8th centuryCuts with slabs, in rowsPeriod 2 Monastic populationCarver et al 2016, 106ff
PortmahomackERc. 17 burials9th/10th century 6 datesCarver et al 2016
BalintoreER3 inhumations5th to 6th centuryLong cistsaDNA analysis; records and local tradition of othersMHG6340; Sheridan et al 2018
Hilton of Cadboll chapel siteER AD 680-900SUERC-9141? from disturbed burialsDisturbed windblown sand layer with charcoal, human and animal boneMHG8547; Roberts 2008
Learnie Cave, near RosemarkieER1 inhumationAD 430-631Carefully laid out in a cave‘Rosemarkie Man’. Brutally killedSheridan et al 2018
TarradaleERBarrow cemetery  Dating to be publishedGrant 2020
Balnuaran of ClavaICremated bones340-870; 590-960AA-21258
On surface outside ring cairnDated by charcoal. Re-use of BA monumentBradley 2000, 115
West Croftmore, PityoulishB&S4 barrows435-605SUERC-73318Pit burial with barrow4 barrows at site, one excavated in 1950s. New datingMHG4687 Sheridan et al 2017
RhiconichNWSCremated bones; possibly human410-640GU-4245Dating of material in hearthRe-use of BA roundhouseMHG12143; Donnelly et al 1997
Table 8.5  Dated Early Medieval burials
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

The burials in general have no grave goods, and it is still unclear if the earlier examples are Christian. At Ackergill in Caithness a female grave included a bronze chain (MHG2135; Heald and Barber 2015, 111ff). The iron fragments found when a barrow was excavated near Pityoulish in the 1950s may also have been grave goods (MHG4687; Rae and Rae 1953).

The situation in the western Highlands is much less clear. The main marker of Pictish influence – the symbol stones and cross slabs – are much more infrequent here (Map 8.1, 8.2). A few long cist graves are recorded near Gairloch (MHG7673), possibly Reiff (MHG24490), Wester Ross and Armadale on Skye (MHG5244).  The evidence at Rhiconich in northwest Sutherland (MHG12143) is particularly intriguing. The bone, possibly human, was heated to very high temperatures suggesting that the roundhouse may have now functioned as a ritual focus (Donnelly et al 1997); however, since burnt animal bone is known at hearths from other sites, further analysis would be needed to confirm this interpretation. No dated funerary evidence survives from Skye or Lochaber, although tantalisingly the 7th century monk, Adomnán, describes the burial of a Pictish military leader under a cairn on Skye in the 6th century (Sharpe 1995, I.35; Ritchie 2011, 140–1).

The evidence suggests that barrow and cairn cemeteries declined after the 7th century (Mitchell and Noble 2019, 95). At the monastery of Portmahomack after this date the cemetery was then used for a select group of individuals: monks. The 8th century burials are oriented west/east in rows with head or body slabs and some with grave markers. Head boxes are not common elsewhere and may indicate a monastic tradition at this period (Maldonado 2011, 244). Almost all the burials are of adult males. The cemetery continued to be used after the raid around AD 800, after which the monastery appears to have stopped functioning, although activity continued on the site. One of the post AD 800 burials has evidence of a wicker bier or basket (Carver et al 2016, 106ff). Interestingly, head-box graves continue to be found in later centuries in this area, including at Newhall Point, Balblair, where two examples were dated to cal AD 990–1215 and 1010–1230 (GU-2073; GU2071; Reed 1995), and St Trolla’s Chapel, Kintradwell (Lelong 2003b, 159).

Evidence of burials after AD 700, other than pagan Viking ones, are much rarer for all of the Highlands. At Kintradwell broch, a body was buried in the rubble from the broch tower and radiocarbon dated to between cal AD 810 and 1020 AD (MHG9778; Tucker and Armit 2009). Is this lack due to a more formal church organisation emerging, with burials now in these areas around churches which were re-used over centuries, as at St Trolla’s Chapel? Or were burials incorporated into settlement sites? We have limited settlement evidence for the entire period to assess this question.


Case Study: Rosemarkie Caves Project